Today the New-York Historical Society’s newest exhibit, Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein opens to the public just in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, January 19. This exhibition features 46 stunning black and white and color photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March. In 1965, the photographer was a Physics major at City College who, on a whim, headed south to cover the protest for his school’s newspaper. But his images go beyond a comprehensive chronology of the march; they capture its soul, highlighting the people behind it.
During the five-day, 54-mile demonstration, tens of thousands of Americans risked their lives to fight for their right to vote. They remained peaceful in the face of horrific violence—residents, as well as local and state police turned out in droves to physically stop protesters. Somerstein arrived on the last day of the five-day demonstration: March 25, 1965, to capture King’s famous speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol Building at Montgomery, “How Long, Not Long.” The photographer gained access to King—hopping on stage to snap the iconic shot of a King’s blurred silhouette before a sea of protesters listening intently to his words.
In recent months, the image has even inspired the movie poster for Selma, a historical drama about the civil rights march.
The film’s poster similarly features King’s back, but the demonstrators in the foreground have been replaced by the march’s opposition: an all-white police force. While the movie focuses on the leader behind the protest, Somerstein’s images emphasize the people driving it. “Somerstein turned on his camera not only to the people marching but also to the people sitting quietly on the side of the road or on their porches watching history being made,” explained the exhibit’s curator Marilyn Kushner. So how are you celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Come check out the people behind the protest in Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein.